Growing Generation Z
During the COVID-19 pandemic, most employees hunkered down in their homes. For many organizations, it was a time to learn how to leverage technology better. For others, it was a time for team members from various age groups to discover how different they were.
I consulted with one company and on a single day heard a Baby Boomer supervisor say, “I don’t think that young man understands me or the core values we embrace here.” One hour later, I met with that young man and heard him say, “I don’t think my supervisor gets me or my values.”
Herein lies the problem.
Generation Z, the young people who have no memories of the 20th century, are different.
Generation Z, the young people who have no memories of the 20th century, are different. They learn of Sept. 11, 2001, in history class. They don’t recall life before social media and have likely never used an iPod. We can either endure them or leverage them to become better as leaders and as a team.
We get to choose.
Understanding Generation Z
Recognizing how to interact with your youngest generation of team members is vital. Like it or not, they are your future. We ignore them and push them away at our own peril. For a decade, organizations talked about the Millennials and mourned how parents failed to get them ready for their careers; millions showed up self-absorbed, confident, entitled and assuming they were awesome. Parents had prepared the path for the child instead of the child for the path.
Today — Generation Z is the emerging population in the workforce. And they’re different.
What’s the difference?
Every generation appears different, perhaps even odd, to the adults who lead it. Consider the differences between Generation Z and the Millennials:
- Gen Z is growing up with smartphones not just cell phones.
- Gen Z is growing up with the first minority president and outsider president.
- Gen Z is growing up in an instant world with a Google reflex that’s on-demand.
- Gen Z is growing up facing mental health issues as early as elementary school.
- Gen Z is growing up watching adults who foster polarization, not collaboration.
- Gen Z is growing up with social media—billions of users on thousands of sites.
- Gen Z has grown up marked, not by a Columbine High School massacre, but by a world that averaged more than one mass shooting per day last year.
An Unfiltered Picture
A typical parent or employer may not realize this because, on the surface, a young adult from Generation Z looks so happy and posts goofy videos on social media. What’s more, those posts are filtered. They’re doctored. They’re tweaked. I’d like to offer you an unfiltered picture of them. As Millennials give way to Gen Z, we see these shifts:
- Confidence is morphing into caution.
- Feeling special is morphing into feeling savvy.
- Attacking an education is morphing into hacking one.
- Spending money is morphing into saving money.
- Viral posts are morphing into vanishing posts.
- Texts messages are morphing into iconic messages.
- Consuming media is morphing into creating media.
- Anticipation is morphing into anxiety.
It’s a new day.
Often, relationships between generations at work feel like “cross-cultural” relationships.
Often, relationships between generations at work feel like “cross-cultural” relationships. When a Baby Boomer speaks to someone from Generation Z, it feels like a conversation with a foreigner who has different values, customs and language. The effort that’s needed, not only to avoid damage but to collaborate, is the same effort we must put into a relationship with someone from another country. And far too often, we’re not ready to put in that effort.
But if we did—what kind of advantages could we enjoy?
Let these young team members PROVE themselves.
As you lead and coach them, keep in mind they may learn differently than you did when you were young. Our research at Growing Leaders, revealed that five tools engage them best when leaders train them to do something. These five tools spell the word “PROVE.”
P – Problem
Don’t start with a “lesson” or even a “task.” Begin with a problem that needs to be solved. Young people learn “just in time” not “just in case.” They learn on a need-to-know basis. If we begin with a problem to be solved, we invite their curiosity and creativity. We elicit the need to know. Angela Ahrendts did this with her youngest team members at Burberry Coats when the company was tanking. Her 20-somethings helped her turn the brand around with their intuition about web design and how to engage a young population of customers.
R – Relationships
Gen Z longs for authentic relationships but often do them poorly through a screen. Leaders must recognize that trust must be earned, and relationship must be established. That means we listen as much as we talk to them. When we do this, we earn the right to share hard truths. I recently met with seven young professionals to equip them in emotional intelligence. I listened for the first half hour of our meeting. We got vulnerable, we laughed as we shared, and then, I coached. They were ready when I first practiced my sermon.
O – Ownership
Gen Z has been led in a prescriptive way all their lives as kids. Parents, teachers and coaches have supervised and prescribed every step of the way, and kids never learned to “own” their own growth. Their “locus of control” was external, not internal. They needed adults to be responsible. It was our fault. Let Gen Z own their job. Teach them what must be done and why, but let them own the “how.” Be a consultant, not a commander. You’ll be amazed at what they can pull off. Chick-Fil-A Operator Zach Thomas does this, and his Gen Z team works like they own the store.
I call adolescents today, “screenagers.”
I call adolescents today, “screenagers.” They grew up with videos, Instagram, Snapchat, Netflix and YouTube. Images are the language of the 21st century. We must leverage them to train and engage our young team members. Why? Pictures are worth a thousand words. Jesus used them in his parables. Each image represented a single truth. We created nine training courses using images to teach biblical truths on leadership. They engage both hemispheres of our brains. Pictures beat lectures every time.
E – Experiences
Finally, our training should not merely include verbal instruction. Experiences genuinely engage Gen Z. The more we create environments and experiences to foster dialogue, the more our training will achieve. They’re not looking for a sage on the stage with an explanation. They’re looking for a guide on the side with an experience. When I train University of Alabama athletes about living with the end in mind, we leave the training room and walk to a graveyard. We read the tombstones and talk about them. Then, we talk about our own. Experiences engage.
Your Action Plan
So, how do we do this? I believe we do so by practicing four metaphors. I call these Habitudes: images that form leadership habits and attitudes. Each image represents a timeless, biblical principle that fosterS both good conversation and practice.
- Chess Not Checkers
Wise leaders play chess not checkers in their relationships. Instead of assuming they should treat everyone alike (checkers pieces) they discover the strength, passion and personality of each player (like chess pieces) and lead accordingly.
- Quarterbacks Not Referees
All football games have referees who enforce rules, call fouls and watch boundaries. Quarterbacks provide direction, inspire and deploy their team. Life-giving leaders fight the impulse to slip into a referee mindset. They’re quarterbacks.
- Guide Dogs Not Guard Dogs
A guard dog’s job is to protect. A guide dog’s job is to partner. One is suspicious, growling, barking and distrustful. The other initiates, trusts, guides and is vulnerable. In relationships, good leaders initiate vulnerability and create safety for teams.
- Bridges Not Walls
We all encounter different people as we lead. Our natural inclination is to see differences and put up a wall. We must consciously build bridges that can bear the weight of honest disclosure. Sadly, it’s quicker and easier to build a wall than a bridge.
I have an assignment for you. This week, practice “reverse mentoring.” It’s a term the late Jack Welch as a CEO created almost 30 years ago, when computers were first used at General Electric. His older executives were hesitant to use this new technology. His new hires fresh out of college, were embracing it all. Sound familiar? Jack matched up seasoned veterans with his new professionals and gave this assignment: both need to mentor and to be mentored by the other. The veterans could share much from their experience and wisdom. The rookies could share much about how technology could be leveraged better for their mission. Relationships were deepened. Trust was built. Value was added. And both received dignity.
Dr. Tim Elmore, Founder & CEO of Growing Leaders, is a world-renowned expert on leadership as well as Generation Y and Generation Z. He equips executives, educators, youth workers, coaches, and more to impart practical life and leadership skills to young adults. His latest book is: Generation Z Unfiltered: Facing nine hidden challenges of the most anxious population (Poet Gardner, Oct. 3, 2019). You can learn more about his work at GrowingLeaders.com.